Folks have been coming to market in Leipzig for centuries now. And the former East German city has turned Christmas shopping into a festive and historic occasion for locals and tourists alike.
In the city of more than 500,000, merchants take over the center of Leipzig and convert it into a panorama of decorated Christmas trees, lights, music and vendors. Starting the last week of November until Dec. 22, the Leipzig Christmas Market spills out from the city center and Market Square into a half-dozen passageways and arcades where scores of shops and cafes await. And the centerpiece is a 60-foot spruce cut from the nearby forest.
Leipzig, a very pedestrian-friendly city, has had a Christmas market since 1767.
At Christmas, the city boasts the largest Advent calendar in the world, with each window measuring about 6 by 9 feet. Each day at 4:30 p.m., people gather to watch one of the calendar's doors — a different door for each day — open to reveal a Christmas scene.
Market Square, with more than 250 vendors in lines of wooden stalls arranged like a medieval market, also features a modern railroad layout and a Fairy Tale Forest depicting childhood stories. Nearby, at Augustusplatz, near the historic Opera House, a giant Ferris wheel lifts riders to a high view of the city's lights at night.
The vendors offer trinkets and handmade gifts and ornaments from the Ore Mountains south of Leipzig, plus wooden toys, clothes, shoes and souvenirs.
Throughout the month, entertainment ranges from daily trumpets' fanfares at Market Square to a Miners' Parade. There will be Christmas concerts by the St. Thomas Church Choir and, in area churches, performances of Bach's Christmas Oratorio.
For less-noisy shopping, the city's passageways and arcades often offer the best finds. These covered shopping areas date to the 18th century, when the city began to have annual market fairs. They were built between buildings so that Leipzig's practical merchants could load and unload their carts without having to turn them around.
Now they beckon with their own decorations, music and aromas. Madlerpassage is the city's best-known and most stylish arcade. It features luxury brands (Lacoste, Swarovski, Carlo Colucci) and access to the city's most famous restaurant, Auerbach Keller, which has been serving meals since 1525.
Also at the city center, the Leipzig Central Station train terminal has been remodeled into a three-story arcade with more than 140 vendors and cafes offering everything from American hamburgers to Japanese sushi. There's also a currency exchange on the ground level.
A city of history
Even though Christmas has been an annual shopping event in Leipzig for 250 years, the city was a trading route for merchants and traders for centuries more. People have been coming to what is now Leipzig to sell their goods since 1165. In 1497, five years after Columbus landed in America, Leipzig was awarded "imperial trade privileges" by Emperor Maximilian.
Because this is an ancient city, there is much history at hand to explore between shopping sprees. Some say this is Classical Music City because Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) spent much of his life here, and Richard Wagner was born here in 1813. There is a Bach Museum as well as the Leipzig Museum of Fine Arts, which in 2004 became the largest museum to open in eastern Germany since 1945.
There are modern touches, too. For car enthusiasts (and those who just like creative architecture), the nearby Porsche Leipzig showroom is open to the public. With its conical architecture, the building at night looks like a flying saucer coming in for a landing. Inside, some of the newest and fastest Porsches on the planet sit on display. There's even a Customer Center restaurant.
If a visitor takes a driving tour of Leipzig, or a boat trip along its river or canals, the city's unique greenbelt appears. The wide greenbelt runs through the center of the city, leading locals to dub it "Leipzig's lung." It is unique in all of Europe.
The tastes of Leipzig
It's possible to snack and sip your way through Leipzig's Christmas Market, almost without stopping. The market is awash with the aroma of baked apples and hot roasted chestnuts, of grilled sausages and mulled wine. Children seem to especially seek out the stalls selling gingerbread biscuits (Lebkuchen). Other vendors sell fried potato pancakes and roasted rolls with cheese and meat inside (Heurigen).
Perhaps the most popular holiday treat to be found is the Leipzig Lark (Leipziger Lerchen). It dates to the 19th century when local bakers began creating a dessert pastry made with a light crust, almonds and other nuts and strawberry jam. The traditional Leipzig Lark has strips of pastry, like a bird's wings, folded over and a strawberry jam heart.
As Leipzig's residents have become more accustomed to their autonomy after years of communism, the city has sprouted pubs and restaurants that allow seating to spread out onto the sidewalk and alleyways.
The result is that nearly a fourth of the city's 1,400 pubs and restaurants, especially at Christmastime, have customers standing and sitting outside, on the sidewalk, in the passageways, even on the street. It's call "Freisitz." It's an official status that allows these pubs and restaurants to stay open as long as there are customers. No closing time.
Fred. Wright Jr. is a freelance writer based in St. Petersburg.